Friday, January 30, 2009

Noir News is...

Greetings from Noir City! First of all: make sure you read Max Goldberg's latest essay inspired by the festival and its newsman theme, found here. It's far more insightful than anything I've ever written about noir myself, that's for sure. Also of related interest are Brecht Andercsh's comments on being "festive at a festival".

Wednesday's San Francisco Film Society co-presentation night at Noir City 7 went pretty much as I expected. Film Society creative director Miguel Pendas came on stage before the film screenings and talked about the grant money the SFFS is planning to distribute to Frisco Bay filmmakers, and spoke of upcoming events of interest to an audience hungry for the cinema of yesteryear. Then Noir City's own Eddie Muller joined him on stage to talk about an in-the-works series of international noir titles, commenting that it's possible to "end up face-down in the gutter anywhere in the world." No details on series dates or titles were revealed, but Pendas spoke of scouting a large-scale series of Japanese noir at last year's San Sebastian International Film Festival, while for his part Muller recounted a recent trip to Buenos Aires to meet the archivists who made last summer's announcement of rediscovered footage lost from Fritz Lang's sci-fi parable Metropolis. While in Argentina, Muller was able to open the lid on a trove of early films made by the great noir cinematographer John Alton in the 1930s, when he was working in that country's film industry. I wonder how long it takes to get a film subtitled in English when it's never been exported before? Would an earmarked donation to the Film Noir Foundation help speed the process along?

The print of Lang's newspaper/crime drama While the City Sleeps was not, as I had predicted after checking various on-line sources, screened in a "Superscope" aspect ratio. However, the compositions didn't look the least bit cropped or awkward, and a bit of poking around the internet reveals that Lang did not intend the film to be shown widescreen. It was great to see such a terrific cast including Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Thomas Mitchell (last seen in Alias Nick Beal Monday night), George Sanders and Ida Lupino, in action, and the newsroom setting of the film couldn't be more appropriate to the theme of this year's festival. By 1956 a rather late entry in the noir cycle, While the City Sleeps is less concerned with the psychic turmoil of the insane "Lipstick murderer" than it is in the reaction of the larger society to his crimes. Andrews' protagonist is in many ways a mirror to the murderer (played by John Barrymore, Jr.) even if he seems outwardly untortured, even by his own temptation to infidelity which is portrayed as a natural male weakness at worst. I'm eager to see the other Lang/Andrews collaboration Beyond a Reasonable Doubt when it plays on Saturday.

Before introducing the co-feature Shakedown, Muller plugged two more film events on the coming calendar. First, on February 14th, is the Silent Film Festival's winter event, the centerpiece of which is the "proto-noir" Sunrise, which he called his favorite silent film of all time. I'm with him, which is why I was so pleased to be able to research the production and reception of the F.W. Murnau-directed film for the festival, as I prepared an essay for the program guide and a slideshow on the first Academy Awards ceremony that will show before the film unspools to Dennis James's musical accompaniment that evening.

Muller also pointed out a double-bill put together by the Film on Film Foundation on March 8th at the Pacific Film Archive: the Bigamist and Outrage, both noirs starring and directed by Ida Lupino, neither of which I've seen before. You can bet I'll be there. This bill is not the only noir coming to the PFA in the next several weeks, though. A series entitled One-Two Punch: Pulp Writers on Film runs Feb. 13-21 and includes adaptations of the writing of Cornell Woolrich, Frederic Brown, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, tackled by noir and neo-noir directors like Robert Siodmak and George Armitage.

Shakedown was terrific, incidentally. It was great to see Frisco circa 1950 in the outdoor shots and through the picture windows of the apartments. But the story, in which Howard Duff's ambition as a photojournalist takes him into the lap of dangerous gangsters with his camera as his only protection, charts one of those grippingly doomed trajectories that pulls me in deeply enough that "spot-the-location" games quickly become unnecessary. What I found most fascinating about Shakedown, in the end, was the fact that just as location shooting, perhaps influenced by Italian Neo-Realism, was inflecting noir with a blurring of the boundary between captured documentary and staged fiction, here was this film whose protagonist blurs the boundary between capturing and staging a photograph, and must deal with the consequences.


  1. Brian,
    Thank you for the generous praise and for your additional Noir City reportage. I wrote a paper recently about the use of real locations in the "semi-documentary" noirs; along these same lines, you should definitely plan on making the restored print of The Savage Eye when it plays on the Cinematheque calendar, if you haven't seen it already. I'll catch you at the Ida Lupino double-feature!

  2. Thanks for the lead, Max. That Cinematheque calendar is a doozy, and the Savage Eye, which I don't think I've heard of before, might have gotten lost in the shuffle.